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Meanwhile: The lions of Ramallah give Palestinians hope

International Herald Tribune – 5 March 2003

The streets of Ramallah, unlike those of most other West Bank cities, are usually free of Israeli soldiers. Despite appearances, however, the army has stamped its control on the West Bank’s capital as certainly as its tanks have left deep tread marks on all the city’s roads.

Nowadays soldiers move in only occasionally from their entrenched positions around the city to patrol the streets, make arrests or further humiliate the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, who is holed up in the only building in his compound of offices not bulldozed by the Israeli army.

But while the Palestinian Authority leader lies cowed in his Ramallah lair, the city continues to display its proudest, and strangest, emblem: a huddle of four lifesize stone lions, each in a different pose and gazing off to the horizon along the four points of the compass.

Work began on the statues in the heady years of the Oslo process and after the return in 1994 of the Palestinian leadership from its exile in Tunis. The lions were given the most prominent place available, at a central roundabout known as the Manara, which is every visitor’s first taste of the city. The Manara was much filmed last year because it provided the backdrop to violent clashes between Ramallah’s militants and the Israeli army.

There is much speculation among Ramallans about these lions, which were hewn from stone in China. It is generally accepted that they represent the city’s four great hamulas, or families. But there is far less agreement on why the biggest, which is sitting upright on his hind legs, is wearing an improbably large wristwatch on a front paw. There are as many explanations as Ramallans to be asked. One popular theory is that a scaled-down model was sent to China with a decorative ribbon attached to the paw. The Chinese, baffled, assumed it was supposed to represent a watch and carved it accordingly.

But, Hassan Mitwalli, an IT worker, claims to know the true story. He says that, after the lions had been designed, a computer expert was entrusted with generating a virtual 3-D model on compact disk to be sent to the Chinese. Aware of the city’s parlous finances, he introduced the watch as a “virus” into the program. It was an insurance policy: were he not paid, he would refuse to remove the watch. Apparently he never got his money.

Majid Khatib, manager of the stylish Karameh coffee shop a short distance from the Manara and an Arafat loyalist, says the lions “represent our strength and our dignity.”

But today, the statues are no longer in the pristine state in which they arrived from China a few years ago. During the long military occupations of last year, when the army took over the center of Ramallah for weeks at a time, the lions took their share of anger vented by the soldiers.

Graffiti is scrawled in Hebrew and Arabic on their bodies; two have large black smudges painted over their muzzles, making it look as if they were sniffing a bomb as it went off cartoon-style; and all have had their tails snapped off.

The most majestic, lying casually on his plinth, has suffered a further indignity: his claws have been meticulously scratched away. Declawed, he stares along the road towards the infamous roadblock Israel has placed between Ramallah and nearby Arab East Jerusalem, long yearned for by Palestinians as the future capital of their state.

In their current condition, the lions look humbled. Like Ramallans they are caged by a ring of army checkpoints and military fortifications. But Saleh Abdel Jawad, a politics lecturer from Birzeit University, warns against assuming that the intifada, and Palestinian defiance, have been so easily subdued. “Just going about your daily life under this kind of occupation – traveling to work, going to school under curfew, crossing the checkpoints – is a form of resistance.”

Khatib says the lions’ presence gives Ramallans hope. “The soldiers have not been able to move or destroy the lions and they will not move us. We will wait patiently for our state.”

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